New Mexico schools will no longer be able to shame students who don’t have lunch money or force them to do chores to pay their parents’ lunch debts, thanks to legislation signed by Gov. Susana Martinez on Thursday. Previously, schools were allowed to make students mop the cafeteria floors for food if their parents were delinquent on hot-lunch payments or strap a wristband to the child’s arm to notify their parents—and all the other students—that she was eating on the school’s dime.
The New York Times reports that this is the first law in the country that’s been written to combat lunch-money shaming. The legislation, dubbed the Hunger-Free Students’ Bill of Rights, requires schools to help parents behind on payments apply for federal aid or figure out workable payment plans instead of humiliating children or making them perform labor for their parents’ inability to pay. This law will apply to all schools—public, private, or religious—that get federal subsidies for student meals.
Students all over the country are subjected to degrading treatment when they come up short at the lunch counter. Rather than deny students food, school employees mark kids’ arms with stamps that say “I need lunch money” with a smiley face, hoping their parents will see it and pay up once the kid gets home. Other kids must clean their fellow students’ tables, a striking enforcement of class divides that are often already visible to children at young ages. Some schools instruct lunch servers to throw a student’s hot lunch away if he brings it to the counter and doesn’t have the balance to pay for it, then give him a cold-lunch option like a sandwich.
The state senator who introduced the bill, Democrat Michael Padilla, said he was subject to such practices as a kid living in foster homes without much money. He told the Times that “it was really noticeable” to other children that he was growing up in poverty. In school environments that can already be hostile to students who are marginalized or different, schools should play no part in punishing students for being poor or having harried, forgetful parents. That’s why the Agriculture Department published a list of “discouraged” actions that single students out for not having lunch money, and suggested alternatives like notifying students discreetly before they get in the lunch line that they’re getting a cheaper cold meal and giving it to them in the line, just like their peers.
Penalizing kids without lunch money has been an accepted outcome for conservatives who don’t like the idea of expanding free-meal programs at schools, in case a child who’s not poor ends up with a free lunch. Mick Mulvaney, Donald Trump’s director of the Office of Management and Budget, said in comments about the proposed federal budget that low-income students who get free meals don’t always do better in school than those who go hungry, so free meals in before- and after-school programs aren’t a worthwhile educational expense. Here’s the philosophy that underlies Mulvaney’s remarks: Children who don’t get enough food at home must personally overcome all socioeconomic barriers to their success and get their grades up before they deserve to be fed at school.